An Experiment in Evolution

Is Darwinian evolution fact? I believe it is not, but who am I to judge? I am not a biologist, nor a paleontologist, nor a geologist. However, I am a software developer and I can develop programs to simulate various phenomena from real life.

About a year ago I developed a program to simulate evolution. I am not the first one to do it, however I believe that my simulation better implements the principles of Darwinian evolution: variation and natural selection. Furthermore, I wrote my program with a bias to make evolution possible. Seeing evolution in action, I came to some interesting conclusions, as well as confirmation of some of the claims of what is now called inteligent design theory.

I wrote a paper on the subject, which you can read here: An Experiment in Evolution – Thoughts on Life, Science and God (mihaioara.com).

For those who do not have the patience to read it, here are some of the findings:

  • Microevolution really occurs
  • Through many of experiments and scenarios, macroevolution (which would include new designs of organisms) was never observed
  • Certain limits of fitness were never attained
  • Fitness improvement came with loss of function

The last point is particularly interesting, being observed in the biological world by Michael J. Behe, a Lehigh University biochemist. As he describes it, one can always improve the fuel economy of the car by stripping it of some non-essential devices. If you throw out the radio, and the air conditioning, you will get better fuel economy. In my case, I have observed how organisms become better fit for a PARTICULAR environment in which they evolve, while losing the ability to function well in other environments.

Politically (In)correct

In February 1956, Khrushchev delivered his famous secret speech at the congress of the Communist Party, in which he criticized Stalin for his abuses and cult of personality. It was a surprise not only for the delegates to the congress, but for the whole world.

Aurel Popescu was at that time a “living space” inspector working for the city of Bucharest, which means that he checked the allocation of apartments to the population and resolved problems related to rents and distribution of space. It was a position which could be very lucrative for one who had no scruples taking bribes. Who was not ready to pay a substantial sum of money to obtain a large apartment close to the city center? However, Aurel did not take bribes. He was a Christian and he felt that God put him in that position to do good, especially helping poor families who needed a place to live.

Aurel and his fellow inspectors spent hours every day visiting places where their intervention was needed. The rest of the hours were spent at their office, which was directly one floor under the mayor’s office. It was a collegial atmosphere, in which they joked, told stories and made good coffee. There was however some limit to this relaxed atmosphere: one has to be careful not to say something politically incorrect, as someone else may be a secret police informer who reported it to authorities.

One evening, Aurel was listening to Radio Free Europe, something which, if not legally prohibited, was strongly discouraged. (In reality, many, even Party members, spend some time in the evening with their fingers on the tuning buttons of the radio.) That evening came with some spectacular news: in his “secret” speech to the Communist party congress, Khrushchev has criticized Stalin. It was not supposed to be public knowledge, but somebody passed the text of the speech to the West where it soon became public.

A few phrases raised Aurel’s attention. One of the fundamental theses of the Communist doctrine to that point was that in socialism class struggle intensifies. This was an idea advanced by Stalin, who was looking everywhere for class enemies to crush. Khrushchev denounced it. No, he said in his speech, socialism brings harmony, therefore the class struggle subsides, not intensifies.

Aurel knew that soon the Romanian Communist Party will follow in the new direction shown by Khrushchev. Soon they will declare that in socialism the class struggle subsides. At that exact time it was dangerous to declare the new doctrine, but it will soon be just fine.

Next day at the office, after some conversation with his colleagues, Aurel said,

“Guys, I was thinking about something. I believe that this idea that in socialism the class struggle intensifies is totally wrong. How can it be? There are no more exploiting classes. Who is fighting who? The Communist Party is the only force, respected and obeyed by all. This theory is totally stupid.”

The other men in the office froze. Some continued their work as if they did not hear anything. Some walked out, while others tried to change the subject, but Aurel insisted,

“Honest, guys, this theory which claims that in socialism the class struggle intensifies is totally wrong. What do you think?”

Nobody answered. Perhaps many of them were thinking, “Poor Aurel, what will happen to him? Perhaps he will be fired, if not arrested. It is a pity, he was a very nice guy.”

Days passed and nothing happened to Aurel. Soon after that, the Romanian Communist Party made known, perhaps in an important article in their party newspaper, that the theory about the intensification of class struggle under Communism was mistaken. No, in fact the class struggle in socialism subsides.

When the change in direction was announced, a few of Aurel’s colleagues shook their heads and told him, like some sore losers: “That was no courage. You must have known in advance.”

Shaky Loyalty

I picked up this story from an Audible course, “The Fall and Rise of China.”

In the 60s, somewhere in a remote Chinese village, there was a young man who came from a middle-class family. His “origin” was thus not a good one (“good” meant coming from a poor peasant family), therefore he had little chances for education and advancement and career in life. He had an idea how to overcome his bleak perspectives.

At that time, competitions were organized all over China, in which young people competed in learning by heart large passages from Mao’s Red Book. He was smart and capable, thus he won the competition in his village. He amazed everybody with his long quotes from Mao’s book, perfectly memorized. He was then sent to the district competition where he won again. As a result, the officials gave him money and sent him to the province capital, for the next level of the competition.

Instead of buying a ticket to the capital of the province, he bough a ticket to the vicinity of Hong Kong, which was at that time a British colony. He used his remaining funds to bribe a border guard and was able to pass into the Hong Kong to freedom.

***

I know a similar story from a friend of mine, I will call him Stephan (not his real name). The story told here happened sometimes in the 70s.

Stephan was a socially gifted young man. In high school and in college, he was the organizer of all group activities. He rented space for dance halls, bought cinema tickets and organized trips and parties. His talent was noticed by a Party secretary, who told Stephan that, talented as he was, he must join the Communist Party. His talent would be highly regarded.

“Not yet,” said Stephan, “let me first finish college, then I will join the Party.”

The Party secretary waited, and when Stephan graduated, he talked with him again.

“No more excuses, not you have to join the Party.”

“Sure,” answered Stephan, “I will be glad to do it. However, I would like to ask you a favor. To celebrate the graduation, and after all the hard work in school, I would like to take a trip to Yugoslavia. I cannot get a passport and approval for the trip without a Party secretary recommendation. Can you give me such a recommendation? I will fill all the forms for becoming a Communist Party member and join as soon as I come back.”

Approvals for trips to Yugoslavia were very hard to get, but Stephan got the recommendation and joined a group of Romanian tourists which went to Belgrade, closely watched by secret Security agents. After a day or two in Belgrade, one late evening he stepped out of the hotel, escaping the close supervision. He took a bus and went to a city close to the Italian border. He was able to illegally cross the border into Italy, and later came to the United States, where I met him.

***

A final note: From what I read, the Romanian Communist Party had about four million members in November 1989. In January 1990, after the fall of the Communist regime, it had perhaps less than 100.

My COVID Manifesto

Any online discussion about COVID is instantly generating passions, debates, and arguments. My own opinions are of a different kind and hope not to upset anyone.

Here is my COVID manifesto:

  1. In all discussions about COVID, I take a humble position, recognizing my ignorance and leaving space for those with other opinions. They may or may not be right.
  2. I am not afraid of catching COVID. This is not because I am brave or lucky, but because (1) I may not be able to avoid it, and (2) if I catch it, there is nothing I can do about it. I may die anyway by many other causes, including car accidents and other diseases.
  3. I am not afraid of vaccines, and I do not care about them. I take the vaccine or the boosters if I must, as for instance for travel or for keeping my job.
  4. I am not pro vaccines or anti vaccines. Both sides have their arguments, but I am not a specialist to make final judgements. I do not despise people having strong opinions on one side or the other. They may be right, or they may be wrong.
  5. I am not pro masks or anti masks. I believe there were exaggerations on both sides. I wear a mask where I must, such as in grocery stores, if there is a local ordinance for it. I do not wear a mask where I do not have to. I hug my friends regardless.
  6. I do not like the “follow the science” phrase, because (1) science is not a collection of final dogmas, but a method of investigation, and (2) the phrase is politicized, reflecting not scientific endeavor but political goals.
  7. I only want to live my life in peace, free form terrors or political manipulations.

Boltzmann Brains

The ever-growing knowledge of the complexity of the Universe and Life is leading many thinkers to the conclusion that such systems cannot appear at random but have an Intelligence behind them. They fit too much together and are fine tune to result in the possibility of stars, planets, life and finally, humans. The list of the fine-tuned aspects (physical constants, arrangement of planets, chemical properties, proteins, etc.) continues to become larger and larger.

The opponents of Intelligent Design have come to alternative explanations of the fine-tuning of the Universe. One of them is the concept of a Multiverse, which consists of an immense number of universes. If so many exist, it is possible that by chance we are placed in one in which all the physical laws and constants happen to fit such that we can exist. (I will write about the Multiverse theory in another post.)

The huge improbability of a purely naturalistic explanation draws a particular observation from the dedicated materialistic or atheistic thinkers.

“It is a matter of imagination! You, theists, lack the power or the will to imagine how all these could have come together through purely naturalistic ways.”

Such an observation is followed by phrases like “It is possible that…,” or “We can easily imagine that…,” or “We do not know yet, but one day Science may discover that…”

Imagination now runs wild. Darwin claimed that life MAY have started in a small warm pond. There is no scientific evidence, but WE CAN IMAGINE it. It is an established fact that accidental mutations are in most cases detrimental to a species, but we can GUESS that given millions of years, something may have miraculously happened to perfect the organisms.

“The sleep or reason produces monsters” is the title of a painting of the Spanish painter Goya. We can replace that with “Too much imagination produces monsters.”

Now I come to my main subject, Boltzmann Brains, named for the German physicist B.

The idea is the following: weird things may happen in the Universe. In the billions of galaxies with hundreds of billions of stars, there are super-large clouds of gas made of hydrogen, helium, and possible other heavier elements. These clouds may extend to hundreds of light years, in an unimaginable immensity. Strange things may happen in these clouds.

Perhaps somewhere there is some shape which looks like a Tesla car, another like an perfect elephant and another which looks like Emperor Napoleon. In fact, we can go much further. One such strange object may be a brain. We are not only talking of outside appearance, but also of complete functionality (the scale does not matter). It is possible that this brain is endowed with a complete memory of childhood. It may have feelings and profound thoughts. It may see people and cities and mountains. Ultimately all these are just illusions created by absolutely random processes, which became possible by the immensity of the space clouds and the number of galaxies. We call these strange objects Boltzmann Brains.

You may be yourself nothing else but a Boltzmann Brain. Furthermore, it seems that it is more probably that you are a Boltzmann Brain than the human being which you think you are, living on planet Earth, having parents and brothers and sisters and children and a community in which you live. After all, the reality which you perceive is more complex than the Boltzmann Brain you are. Imagination and the illusion of reality is cheaper and easier to exists than the reality itself.

If you are really a Boltzmann Brain, your reality may by chance start to behave in a strange way. The sun may suddenly disappear and in stead of it you will see a rabbit running across the sky. In the next moment you will figure up how to give a simple demonstration of Fermat’s theorem. The possibilities are endless.

Science as an instrument to discover the Truth dissolves. There is no physics, no chemistry, and no biology. There is no Truth, there is no ultimate reality and there is no reality at all. It is all an illusion created by the random and strange and coincidental fluctuation of various fields and particles inside a galaxy gas cloud.

I do not know about you, but I do not believe I am a Boltzmann Brain. I believe I live on a real Planet Earth, I have a real family and I live in a nice American city. Most important, I believe I am a human being created in the image of God.

Philosophical Zombies

I will attempt to explain what Philosophical Zombies are and why they matter.

Do not worry, philosophical zombies do not exist in reality, or at least we do not know of any. They are purely mental constructs used to make a “thought experiment” and draw conclusions. A philosophical zombie is defined as a being which has all the outside attributes of a human being but does not have a soul or a conscience.

Conscience is defined in a number of ways. A good definition is based on the feeling that “I am me and I am here,” a feeling which persists during the whole period in which we are awake. The problem which materialists (or naturalists or physicalists) have with this is that it is impossible to explain the existence of conscience as emerging from pure physical processes in the brain. This is called “the hard problem of conscience.”

Moreover, the existence of a conscience or soul cannot be explained in the context of Neo Darwinism. If some primitive form of an anthropoid existed from which humans evolved, why and at what point did conscience appear? Evolution claims that new features in a specie appear under a “selection pressure,” which is the need to become more fit. But how does conscience make us more fit as simple animals? On the contrary, conscience slows us down and burdens our brains with thoughts which do not help us to adapt to the environment or to immediate situations. As simple animals we would perform much better without conscience. Intelligence itself does not imply a conscience. Computers are intelligent, but not aware of themselves. For this reason, some scientists believe that conscience is a simple epiphenomenon, i. e. a collateral effect which has no role in the process in which it appears. An example of an epiphenomenon is the noise made by the car engine: it results from the running of the engine, but it is a collateral effect with no role in moving the car.

Even such a hypothesis (that conscience is an epiphenomenon) leaves the materialist with unanswered questions. According to the theory of evolution, the features which do not contribute to fitness disappear in time. Many believe that the so-called “junk DNA” is such a deposit of failed and unnecessary features. If not useful, over many generations they become corrupted and either disappear or become totally dysfunctional.

Our philosophical zombies are virtual beings which look and act just like normal humans but have no conscience or soul. They can act (just as machines) and even solve problems (just as computers). Theoretically they should be more fit and more efficient than us, humans. From a purely materialistic point of view, we should all be such zombies.

But we are not zombies. We KNOW we have a conscience or soul. This cannot be explained in a naturalistic paradigm.

When Democracy Fails

There are a number of sacred caws which dominate the minds of most Americans: free market, democracy, progress, capitalism, freedom. Neither of these are bad in themselves, on the contrary, they have produced better fruits compared with their opposites: controlled economy, authoritarianism, stagnation, socialism, social control. The problem is when we make them into sacred caws, into magic words which tend to end any critical argument. We tend to have romantic ideas about these concepts, forgetting that they sometimes crumble in the presence of human weaknesses.

I do not want to go into the theory of any of these concepts, people much more qualified than me have done it. I would like only to describe an episode in my career which illustrate the imperfection of American democracy and free market. I want to apologize in advance if some dates or names are not correct, although the story in its essence is certainly true.

Good times do not last forever

In 1988 I was working as a contractor for the investment firm First Boston, which was bidding for my services and took me away from my previous client, Morgan Stanley. I belonged to a class of software engineers who called themselves consultants and who were in high demand, especially the ones with good experience and superior skills. We were making good money. The average “consultant” was making probably around $600 per day, but that varied based on hours worked and individual consultant abilities. For me it was a great chance. In the first years as a fresh immigrant in United States, having two children, I was convinced that I will never be able to buy a house. Suddenly, after a few months of savings, I was able to put down the money for a down payment on a house.

These “consultants” were good for their clients. The client did not have to pay for medical insurance or other benefits, such as vacation. The client did not invest in their education or training, but just sign a contract and suddenly have a highly skilled engineer who was able to be highly productive from day one. Eventually some successful consultants (and I was one) received offers to joint their clients as full-time employees. In my case I declined the offers, happy with both the good income and the freedom which the consultant status offered me.

At First Boston (later acquired by Credit Swiss) we discovered a competitor: Arthur Andersen, one of the Big Five accounting firms, which also provided computer services. Arthur Andersen placed consultants at First Boston (and at many other large New York banks) in much more lucrative conditions. Among these, Arthur Andersen charged approximately double for each person placed at the bank. A lot of their people were fresh graduates, who were trained at the client site and at client’s expense. This was a very sweet deal, considering that Andersen people were paid only a fraction of what was the client charged, perhaps something like $300 or $400 per day. In other words, we, the independent consultants, were highly skilled individuals in which the client invested nothing, and were paid about the half of the pay for Andersen trainees.

This comparison between us, the independents, and the Andersen people did not result in envy, bad blood, or animosity. We recognize that Andersen has strong muscles, prestige, and influence. Perhaps their management rubbed shoulders with the top bank executives, played golf together or invited them for cruises on private yachts.

The poor man’s sheep

Soon, however, a new situation developed, which would remind one of the “poor man’s sheep” story, in which a rich man who has 100 sheep steals the only sheep of a poor man. Arthur Andersen decided that they can grab extra market share and realize a higher profit if they throw us, independent consultants, out and occupy the whole ground. To accomplish this, they appealed to the democratic process provided by our American system of government. More specific, Andersen lobbied with the New Jersey senator Lautenberg to introduce laws that would prevent us, the independents to continue our business.

The honorable NJ senator introduced a new law which forced the companies who hire contractors for long periods of time to treat them as employees. We have heard of such recent laws (like in the case of Uber) where the intention was to protect the workers. However, this was not the case here. We, contractors, were very happy with our positions. Furthermore, we knew that our clients could not convert us to employees overnight. The consequence of the law was simply that some of us would have lost our contracts and suddenly found ourselves jobless. The new law was engineered such that it did not affect Arthur Andersen. Their people were already employees, and the new law did not apply to them.

The most striking aspect of the new law was its justification, which went as following. Big companies (like Arthur Andersen) have huge overhead – management, accounting, public relations, etc. Independent contractors had no overhead. I was my own accountant, driver, manager. As a result, the argument went, there is an unfair balance. Poor big companies had to spend money on overhead, while we, independents, were overhead free. Unfair! What the argument did not say was the fact that of big companies overhead consisted of private planes and conferences in Hawaii and golf parties in Florida at which they invited senators like Lautenberg. Ultimately competition was considered unfair because we, independents, were productive and inexpensive, while Arthur Andersen was bloated and expensive. The Congress wanted to even the field.

There was an explosion of rage among independent consultants. They even organized a big meeting somewhere in midtown Manhattan and wrote letters and petitions. I was not part of that, not being a social revolutionary by temperament. In the end, the law introduce by Senator Lautenberg was approved by the Congress. I have no statistics, but I am sure that a lot of independents lost their contracts, although maybe not their living, as many were absorbed into full time jobs as employees at various firms.

After the new law took effect, one day a First Boston manager called me in his office and discretely showed me a letter addressed by Arthur Andersen to the management of First Boston. The letter was in fact a threat vailed as advice. It reminded First Boston that if they continue to work with independent consultants (like me) they may be breeching the law. There was however a solution: in its good will, Arthur Andersen was ready to replace the independents with their own people.

A short follow up

Arthur Andersen ceased to be a viable business, after was involved in the Enron scandals in 2002. They helped Enron cheat on their clients and investors. However, some of the Arthur Andersen’s business survived as a new company, Accenture.

From Wikipedia:

The 2005 ruling theoretically left Andersen free to resume operations. However, CNN reported that by then, Andersen was “nearly defunct,” with about 200 employees remaining from a high of 28,000 in 2002. Following the ruling, William Mateja, a former counsel to the Attorney General who had supervised the Andersen appeal, told NPR that he did not believe the government would seek a retrial because “obviously there’s nothing left of Arthur Andersen, and to spend the taxpayers’ money on another prosecution would be just—defy common sense.” Echoing this, United States Chamber of Commerce vice president Stephen Bokat pronounced Andersen “dead,” and said that “there is no putting the company back together. In his post-mortem of the Enron scandal, Conspiracy of Fools, journalist Kurt Eichenwald argued that even if Andersen had escaped the Enron scandal unscathed, it would have likely been brought down by the massive accounting fraud at WorldCom. The WorldCom fraud came to light just days after Andersen was convicted of wrongdoing at Enron.

Senator Lautenberg died in 2013, at the age of 89, after he served a total of 25 years in the Senate.

I received an offer to become full time employee at First Boston, which I gladly accepted. However, my income dropped by a large margin and I and my family had to learn to live with much less.

Some personal conclusions

  1. Big money and strong lobby influence in politics beat both the interests of the many and the rational expectations for fairness.
  2. There is no such thing as pure free market. Various interests are more powerful than the simple principle of competition for the highest good of society.
  3. The best do not always win.

I am neither troubled nor upset because of all these, having a somehow realistic (and pessimistic) view of human nature and society. I cannot change the circumstances, but through all of them try to do what is right and pure and good. The rest is God’s will.

And Brutus is an Honorable Man

Imagine this: You want to say something which contradicts the social, political, or economic power above you. If you say what you really believe, you will be in trouble, fired, imprisoned, or cancelled. You must say what is expected of you, but in doing it, you want to express the opposite of what is expected.

Let’s look at some examples.

Mark Anthony speech in the play Julius Cesar by William Shakespeare

The setting

Julius Caesar was assassinated on the ides of March (March 15), 44 BC. His friend Mark Anthony had heard of the plot and wanting to protect Caesar came with him to the Senate. However, the conspirators anticipated this and had a politician called Trebonius intercept and hold him outside the Senate chamber.

After Caesar was killed, Mark Anthony asked permission from the assassins to give a funeral oration for Caesar in front of the people. The conspirators agreed, with one condition, that he will not attack or condemn them for their act. Mark Anthony accepted this restriction and spoke to the people.

The message

The following is William Shakespeare’s rendition of Mark Anthony’s speech. Pay attention to the text in bold.

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:

If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answer’d it.
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest–
For Brutus is an honorable man;
So are they all, all honorable men–

Come I to speak in Caesar’s funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honorable man.
He hath brought many captives home to Rome
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept:
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff:
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honorable man.

You all did see that on the Lupercal
I thrice presented him a kingly crown,
Which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition?
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious
And, sure, he is an honorable man.
I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke,
But here I am to speak what I do know.
You all did love him once, not without cause:
What cause withholds you then, to mourn for him?
O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason. Bear with me;
My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,
And I must pause till it come back to me.

Analysis

Mark Anthony is apparently keeping his word to not attack Caesar’s assassins in his speech. He even states clearly that Brutus and his companions are honorable men. How did his audience perceive his words? He enumerates facts which contradict Brutus’ contentions about Caesar, and then, in a non sequitur state that Brutus is an honorable man.  His audience know it and it is quite transparent that Mark Anthony calls Brutus honorable only to formally mollify the assassins.

Nixon speech about Vietnam in 1968

The setting

Richard Nixon was running for President in 1968 against the Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey. President Johnson has already announced that he will not run again but he was obviously supporting Humphrey and wanted the Democrats to win. One of the hot topics of the campaign was the Vietnam war. By that time, the majority of the American people had turned against the war.

Johnson made some announcements which indicated that he intends to bring the war to a speedy conclusion. This was supposed to help his man, Hubert Humphrey.

Nixon reacted to Johnson announcement and made his opinions public in a speech. I do not have the exact text, but I can reproduce his main points. This is what he said:

The message

I have heard President Johnson announcements regarding the Vietnam war, and I have two points to make:

First:  President Johnson announcement is very welcome. He moves us in a good direction, and I commend him for that.

Second:  I have also heard from various sources that in fact his announcement is just a trick to gain votes for the Democrat candidate. Once the election is over, he will renege on his promises and we will be back where we are now. However, I know that President Johnson is a honorable man and do not believe this rumor to be true.

Analysis

Apparently, Nixon is using the same technique as Mark Anthony. Maybe Johnson is lying about his initiative for peace. But people know that Johnson lied about the war in the past and he had a law credibility with large sections of the American society. The accusation that Johnson is lying, even if apparently denied, still has a lot of weight. On the contrary, the praise heaped on Johnson is not believable.

Avoiding Communist censorship

The setting

It is a known fact that in Communist countries the Party was exercising a strict control of the media and the published books. Most authors were aware of this and avoided anything that could fall under the rejection of the censor.

Occasionally some scholar wanted to author and publish an article or a book which contained ideas contrary to the Communist dogma. He or she had to become creative in getting approval to publish. One method was to make the text cryptic, accessible only to well-trained specialists. A non-trained censor may thus miss the real message and put his stamp of approval.

Yet another method was to include something which would mollify the censor. The difficulty was to do it in such a way as to not destroy the professionalism and prestige of the author and not to seed doubts about the central theses of the article or book.  

After so many years since Communism collapsed in East Europe, I do not have a sample in front of me, however I can make one up, based on what I saw with my eyes.

Imagine that a scholar wanted to publish a book about the French philosopher Blaise Pascal. It is a difficult subject (as far as censorship is involved) because Pascal was a profound Christian, which was reflected in his philosophy. Will the censor allow such a book? The author devises a way to get it approved. Some passage of the book may look like below (I used texts from the Wikipedia article on Blaise Pascal.

The message

Pascal is arguably best known as a philosopher, considered by some the second greatest French mind behind René Descartes. He was a dualist following Descartes. However, he is also remembered for his opposition to both the rationalism of the likes of Descartes and simultaneous opposition to the main countervailing epistemology, empiricism, preferring fideism.

As Comrade Nicolae Ceausescu has shown us at the XIX Congress of the Communist Party, we must be vigilant against any manifestation of the old ways of thinking, based on idealism and religious superstitions. We must educate the new generation in the spirit of dialectical materialism and Marxism. Only in this way our country can move to new heights of civilization, raising our people to the highest standards of living. Only in this way we can build the true Communist society.

Pascal cared above all about the philosophy of religion. Pascalian theology has grown out of his perspective that humans are, according to Wood, "born into a duplicitous world that shapes us into duplicitous subjects and so we find it easy to reject God continually and deceive ourselves about our own sinfulness"

Analysis

The text in bold letters does not fit either in style or in ideas with the rest of the fragment. Why would an author suddenly jump from a respectful and admiring evaluation of Pascal to the stupid ideas of a despised dictator? Yes, the censor may be enchanted by this inclusion, but any cultured person will immediately understand that the praise of Ceausescu is not sincere and was introduced only to have the book approved for publication.

TODAY

Our culture is moving to a form of soft totalitarianism. Certain ideas are accepted and encouraged by the media and by the politicians, while others are rejected. Many times, any public statement which contradicts the official theory, it is attacked, and its author is isolated or “cancelled.”

A few years ago, I travelled to UK and visited a large company. On one nice summer day, I was invited to an outdoors party for the people working at that location. As we enter the courtyard, we all received a flyer which stated the company policy regarding discrimination. The flyer asked that all employees must immediately report if any co-worker makes a critical or ironical remark about transsexuality.

I was unpleasantly impressed for two reasons. First, because the company was attempting to stifle opinions which did not conform to its ideology. What the employees believed was not the company’s business. Why in the world was the management doing this? But the second problem was worse: they asked the employees to rat against their co-workers. I have grown under the Communist regime, and I absolutely hated the practice of encouraging people to rat on their neighbors.

The company policy, as stated in the flyer, did not concern me as I was not an employee. However, I tried to imagine what could possibly happen to me if I were an employee. What if my boss asked me to talk about such “company values” in front of other employees? If I refused or said something against the company’s “values,” I would probably be fired.

I believe the future will more and more bring such morally difficult situations. If it happens to you, remember Mark Anthony’s speech. Use the art of non sequitur. Fill your speech with facts which contradict the official line, then state that the official line is correct. The facts will be convincing, and the conclusion will not. You can always hide behind the conclusion, but he who has ears will hear the truth.

Chain of Friendship Beats Unjust Punishment

This is how I must have looked in 1975

This was happening in Romania, in 1975, when, at the age of nineteen I was doing my military service.

After three months of basic training in a military unit, we all dreamed not of great acts of courage in battles, not of promotions, not of decorations, but of our kind and compassionate mothers who pampered us and cooked some wonderful cakes. The gentle kiss of the mother was better than the shouts of the brutal sergeant.  

Once basic training ended, some of us started to get permissions for short leave, one or two days visit home. The order in which these were granted was, obviously, in direct relation to the political position of the parents. First, the sons of higherups in the Communist Party hierarchy, then sons of high rank military officers, then sons of high-level bureaucrats or industrial managers. I had little hope, as my father was a humble telephone exchange technician.

Still, I got lucky. My mother knew a lady in her church, who had a sister in the city where I was serving my military service. The sister was a tailor and she made nice dresses for officers’ wives. One of the these was the wife of an officer, a lieutenant colonel in our artillery regiment. The chain worked perfectly. My mother was very close to the lady in the church, who loved her sister far away, who was a good tailor much appreciated by her clients, and the officer’s wife obviously had some influence over him.

In spite of the perfect chain of influence, my leave did not go exactly smooth.

On a Friday morning, my team was in charge of cleaning the toilets. (I was a team leader, I do not know why.) We did a good job, considering that solders came to use the toilets, bringing in the mud from outside. We cleaned as they left and then one of our guys tried to prevent others from coming in. Around eight in the morning, we were lined up in formation in front of the building, when a major, whom we called Torquemada (as in the famous Inquisitor) came to inspect the premises. Suddenly, a soldier came running and called: “Soldier Oara, come to report.” I knew I was in trouble but did not yet know why.

Inside, Torquemada was surrounded by other lower rank officers, including our direct commanders, and looked angry. I saluted smartly, “Long live, comrade major!”

“Soldier Oara,” he started, with a low voice and with the appearance of a man struggling to control himself in the face of a great outrage. “What is this?” He pointed to some traces of mud in the showers area.

“I can explain it, comrade major,” I answered. I wanted to say that after we did a thoroughfull job of cleaning, some soldier must have run to the toilet and ruin our perfection.

He raised his voice and started to shout: “I do not want to hear excuses, I want to know why the floor is dirty!”

“Of course, comrade major,” I tried again. “This happened because..”

Now he was really furious. “Did I not tell you that I do not want excuses!!!” I want to know why you did not do your duty and why the floor is dirty.”

At that point, whatever was left of my faith in justice and reason collapsed. I gave up and decided to remain silent and frozen, like a deer caught in the headlights.

The major calmed down. “Good,” he said, “three days arrest. Lieutenant, make sure he goes there at the end of your day’s activities.”

I was not scared. I heard that arrest was not too bad. One time, an inspection found the guards sleeping in the cells while the arrested played cards in the main room. (It was obviously a scandal!)

At the end of the day, I was prepared to go to the guards’ building, to spend the next days under arrest. Just when I was about to go, the lieutenant colonel appeared and asked for me, by name. I presented myself in front of him and saluted.

“Oara,” he told me, “you have three days leave. You may go home and visit your parents.”

“Thank you, comrade lieutenant colonel,” I mumbled, “but it is impossible. Comrade major punished me with three days of arrest.”

“What?” he asked scandalized and uttered a curse. “I do not care about that. When I say you go, you go. Here are your papers.”

I knew I could catch a late-night train to go home. I dressed up and left, which was easy, as our building was outside of regiment’s guarded perimeter. I was only afraid that on my way to the railway station I would meet Torquemada or one of my commanding officers who knew of my punishment. For the first time in my life, I felt like a prey afraid of the predator, and had all my senses dialed to the maximum. I made it home, where I enjoyed the loving embrace of my mother and my father.

I returned in time at the end of my leave. To my surprise, Torquemada did not ask me anything about may failed punishment.

Three Beautiful Songs Which I Detest

Here are three songs, well-known and with a powerful impact in the generations in which they first were first played. They have beautiful tunes, which are in perfect harmony with their message. These are the songs which we occasionally find ourselves humming, sometimes to our own surprise. They all have powerful messages which mold the minds and have an impact on whole generations.

Yet, their message is a lie. Even worse, they lead people towards dangerous dreams, disconnected from reality and from the essence of the human nature.

The Internationale

This was the anthem of the working class on its way to communist revolution. The name came from the first socialist international organization of workers, called the First International, established in 1864. The Second International (1889) adopted it as its anthem.

There are multiple versions of its lyrics, all expressing the same ideas. I will use here the version which I have learned myself and sang at various public meetings in Communist Romania. It goes like this:

Raise up, you oppressed of life,
You, condemned to hunger, wake up.
Let rebellion boil in your hearts,
Let the old world perish.

Finish up the dark past
Raise up you oppressed,
Today you are nothing in the world
Fight that you will become everything.

Come to the great fight
Slave with slave let us unite
The Internationale
Through ourselves to create.

Raise up, there is no salvation
Through kings, nobles, or gods.
Unity, workers, unity,
And the world will get rid of them.

The words of the anthem find some resonance in all of us, as they seem to embolden us to fight for justice. They may remind us of Israel coming out of Egypt or of the Spartacus rebellion. Let the slaves go free, punish their oppressors and establish a new world order in which there will be no oppression and men will live in brotherhood!

Alas, anger, hate and violence cannot create a better world. Violence brings more violence, hate brings more hate and anger triggers more anger, until the dreams of justice collapse in ashes or take a new form, very far from the initial dreams. The Communist revolutions resulted in tens of millions of deaths, and indescribable suffering for the very masses of people who were supposed to be liberated. After the violence run out of its course, it gave place to a new order, worse than the one which it overturned.

I saw it with my eyes. In Communist Romania, where I grew up, there was no workers’ paradise. We had to wait long hours in lines to buy food, while the leaders of the Communist Party, which we called The Nomenklatura, enjoyed privileges not very different from those of the hated capitalists who exploited the workers. The Nomenklatura had its own network of stores, in which they could buy products inaccessible to the rest of the population. They had their hotels, which were closed to the public. Their children could go and study at Oxford or Sorbonne, while we could not get a passport to travel to another country. The same children got the best jobs and were marked for promotion in their organizations.

There was however a revolution which succeeded beyond any expectation. Jesus Christ gathered around him twelve apostles and a few tens of disciples and preached to them love and humility. There was no trace of anger, hate or violence. Still, in less then 300 years, the mighty Roman Empire was conquered, and Constantin became the first Christian emperor. The Byzantine Empire lasted for more than a thousand years and the whole culture and thinking of Europe was penetrated by Christian values and Christian thinking. Not that everybody called a Christian behaved as the Gospel proclaimed and required, on the contrary. However, Christianity lived for two thousand of years, while Communist power collapsed in total failure in a little more than half a century.

The author of the song may have been sincere and well intentioned. The ones who believed its message were deceived and became simple pawns, in the hands of dictators or mafia figures. Hate, anger and violence cannot not create a better world.

Frank Sinatra: I did it my way

Here is a beautiful song (at least as far as the tune goes), meant to put us at ease when we are bothered by our past.

And now, the end is near
And so I face the final curtain
My friend, I’ll say it clear
I’ll state my case, of which I’m certain

I’ve lived a life that’s full
I traveled each and every highway
And more, much more than this
I did it my way

Regrets, I’ve had a few
But then again, too few to mention
I did what I had to do
And saw it through without exemption

I planned each charted course
Each careful step along the byway
And more, much more than this
I did it my way

Yes, there were times, I’m sure you knew
When I bit off more than I could chew
But through it all, when there was doubt
I ate it up and spit it out

I faced it all and I stood tall
And did it my way

I’ve loved, I’ve laughed and cried
I’ve had my fill, my share of losing
And now, as tears subside
I find it all so amusing to think I did all that

And may I say, not in a shy way
Oh, no, oh, no, not me, I did it my way

For what is a man, what has he got?
If not himself, then he has not
To say the things he truly feels
And not the words of one who kneels

The record shows I took the blows
And did it my way

Yes, it was my way

So beautiful, so romantic, and so wrong! Normal human nature is always such that we strive for something ABOVE and BEYOND ourselves, while here the author declares that he has found the full meaning of his live in himself alone. There is no TRANSCENDENCE. The athlete attempts to reach a new record, the engineer to build a better machine, the composer to create a more beautiful piece. We all think of moral laws which are above use, and to which we try to conform. Not the author of this song.

So, I imagine the following scenario:

Mister X was married in his youth and had three children. He then abandoned his wife and children, as he found a more attractive woman. He started a successful business, and then deceived his partner, who was thrown out with nothing to show for his hard work. Mister X’s business prospered, in part due to the way he deceived his customers. He acquired a young, trophy wife.

Now, he is a rich and successful man. Still, deep inside his conscience bothers him, and he feels that some things were not right. It is a pity that his conscience throws a shadow over his plentiful life.

In his 60’s, he goes to Las Vegas and buys tickets to a Franks Sinatra’s concert. He hears this beautiful song, “I did it my way” and suddenly has a revelation. All is well and tears come into his eyes. Yes, he was disloyal and deceptive, he ruined many lives to reach this high point in life. But there is something redeeming: he did it his way. There is no repentance, no restoration, no compensation to the victims. Unlike Zacchaeus, who, when he met Jesus promised to give back all that he had stolen from others, even four times more, Mister X does not have to return anything, because he did it his way. Mister X is now at peace with himself.

John Lennon: Imagine

My life had a strange connection with John Lennon: I arrived as an immigrant in United States the next day after he was assassinated in Central Park, New York. For at least one day we were physically present in the same city, New York, I as a perplexed immigrant looking in amazement at a city full of life, and he as a dead corpse of a famous singer and song writer and millionaire.

At that time, I was not aware of his latest successful song, Imagine. I believe I’ve heard it for the first time while I was working in the IT organization of the bank Morgan Stanley. My boss, a brilliant and capable man, was humming Imagine his office.

Imagine there’s no Heaven
It’s easy if you try
No Hell below us
Above us only sky

Imagine all the people
Livin’ for today
Aaa haa

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too

Imagine all the people
Livin’ life in peace
Yoo hoo

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man

Imagine all the people
Sharin’ all the world
Yoo hoo

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one

“You may say I’m a dreamer,” John Lennon tells us, and he is, a dreamer of the worst kind. It is no better than the dream of a teenage boy who thinks about his favorite sexy actress. John Lennon feels good about his dream, because he believes he loves mankind and thus he is a better person. But, he claims, it is not just a dream, because he is not the only one. Maybe a world revolution will come, in which dreamers singing kumbaya will conquer the world with their dreams and beautiful songs.

He imagines a world without possessions, while in the meantime he is a multi-millionaire living in a hedonistic paradise. We know that he was not a generous person, not caring for his own son Julian. He told his son, “You are the product of a whisky bottle.” But if he was an egotistic and greedy man, at least he dreamed about a world with no possessions.

John Lennon even has a formula for the success of his dreams: “No heaven, no religion, no possessions.” Many have tried this formula, including Lenin, Trotsky or Mao, and their dreams became a nightmare and lead to the suffering and death of tens of millions of people.

***

I am not suggesting that we should stop ever listening to these songs. We can even enjoy them, as long as we can listen to them with detachment, in a particular way, not taking them seriously. Here I have to confess: sometimes I find myself humming some old Communist revolutionary hymns which I have learned in my childhood as a Young Pioneer. Besides the feelings of nostalgia, they amuse me by their incredible absurdity, and they make me laugh. It is the same as listening to the “Springtime for Hitler in Germany,” in the movie The Producers. It would be in bad taste, until you discover, just as in that movie, that it is only a comedy which makes fund of human stupidity,

Healing the Ethnic Wounds – The Turks

As I have announced earlier, I will write about reconciliations between nations, including only the cases closer to me, as I was born and grew in Romania.

For most of its history, Romanian fought the Turks. They were our fierce and feared enemies.

Our grievances

After the Ottoman empire moved in Europe (finally conquering Constantinople) it also set its eyes on the Christian provinces north of Danube, Walachia and Moldova. Starting at that time, and through the following centuries, the Turks continually invaded the Romanian provinces. These were never incorporated in the Ottoman empire, but eventually became vassals. There were wars and battles, and many of our kings fought against the Turks, among them Mircea the Great (also known as the Elder), Vlad Tepes (the Impaler), Michael the Brave and Stephan the Great.

Outside of these wars, Wallachia and Moldova had to pay tribute and had to contribute to the empire in many other ways, including with troops in case of foreign wars. One of the most onerous aspects was the fact that part of the tribute had to be paid in children – young boys who were taken to the empire,  reared as Muslims and made into Turkish Janissaries. During the Phanariot period, the thrones of the two provinces were open for bidding and each rich Greek who won stayed but for a short time, in which he milked the provinces and extracted as much as possible from them. When the Romanians rebelled, Turkish troops invaded, burned and looted and killed.

The Phanariot period ended in 1821, as a result of the rebellion of Tudor Vladimirescu. In 1856, Wallachia and Moldova united in a single country, now called Romania. This was done in spite of the Turkish opposition, in 1877 Romania won its independence, during the Russian Turkish war.

Their grievances

While we were obviously the injured party, the Turks may have had their own grievances. Recognizing the fact that some of the atrocities were part of the medieval world, the Turks were not the worst possible masters. From what I read, they were quite correct in the rules and agreements made with the Romanian provinces. Most of the time, it was the Romanians who broke them, in rebellion after rebellion. Moreover, many times the Romanians secretly allied themselves with other powers, in what the Turks may have called backstabbing.

Reconciliation

It is a wonderful thing that today there are no resentments against the Turks among the Romanians. They form a small minority in Romania and suffer no discrimination. In the Romanian literature the local Turks are even treated with affection.

In New York I once encountered at work a Turkish engineer. We joked about our past, which was a testimony of the absence of any resentments. I told him, “As I grew up, I have learned a lot in school about our past wars. It seemed that we won most of the time.” He laughed and responded, “So did I learn about our wars with you, but in our version, we won most of the time.” We were good friends.

Here is the most amazing episode, which always impresses me.

At the conclusion of the battles in the war for independence in 1877, the Turkish general in charge was taken prisoner. He was treated with the utmost respect. But this was not all.

Concerned about the feelings of the Turkish small minority in Romania at the conclusion of the war, the Romanian king Carol I took an unusual step. He instituted a royal guard, which was formed exclusively by young Turks. By this, he showed that they are not despised, nor oppressed, nor second citizens, but hold in the highest respect. In 1910 he built a large mosque for the Turks in the Black Sea pot of Constanta. They called it the mosque Carol I, perhaps the only Muslim mosque in the world to bear the name of a Christian king.

Healing Ethnic Wounds

In United States we often hear – unfortunately more and more – about racial tensions, racial injustice, and racial guilt. It is sad that we read or hear a lot about the negative aspects, and less about how to forgive, correct and heal.

I had little exposure to racial problems, mostly limited to what I read. My life was limited to family, church, work, and friends. I knew friends of other races and had good and warm relationships with them. I am thus not so much qualified to talk about race. However, coming from Europe, I had the opportunity to witness and even feel tensions between nations and ethnic groups. I have learned a lot about them, and this is what I would like to write about, hoping that it would be revealing and beneficial to my readers.

I started to think more about this subject after a small talk at my workplace. One of my colleagues was a German software engineer, born and raised in Germany, who otherwise worked many years in the United States, to the point at which he spoke English without any German accent.  He told me this:

“I had strange the experiences in France. If I go to a restaurant in Paris and order food, it makes a difference if I appear as an American or as a German. If I am an American, they are professional but cool with me. If I am a German, they are more friendly and respectful.”

Was this not amazing? The French and the Germans were involved in wars with each other for a thousand years, perhaps more. Worse, in the twentieth century they had two major wars, in which territories were exchanged and in which more than a million people died. Each one had humiliated the other, the French at Versailles, the Germans with the quick defeat of the French armies in WWII. They did not just enslaved but killed each other.  In both wars, the United States help the French people defeat the Germans. How come now the French are more friendly with the Germans than with the Americans?

I have seen other things which surprised me at the time – but not now. Sometimes in the mid-nineties I rented a car in Frankfurt, Germany and drove in a weekend to Strasbourg, France. I watched my map carefully and when I approached the line of the border, I prepared my passport. Surprise: there was no border passport control. In fact, there was nothing to mark the border. Cars flowed freely between the two countries and the only way to detect that you cross the border was to look at the language of the road signs. This was even more impressing for me, because coming from a former Communist country, I imagined borders as some impassible barriers, maned with forbidding and unsmiling soldiers and machine guns in high towers. There was not a trace of that here. Crossing from Germany to France was the same as crossing from Virginia to Maryland.

How can one explain the total disappearance of the old wounds, resentments, and animosities?

Perhaps the best way to understand this is to look how brothers relate to each other. In childhood and even in the teenage years, they may fight and occasionally even think that they hate each other. I saw this in my own family and in other families. After they grow and have their separate lives, everything changes. Even if they do not show it, they experience real brotherly love. They keep in touch, and they are happy when they meet. They tell stories about their childhood, and they laugh at their past conflicts. They discover that what separates them, including past grievances, are but a negligible part of a bigger picture. They grew together, shared experiences, had the same parents, went to the same schools, grew in the same house, played with the same pets and had common friends on their street.

This commonality of experiences and values is what can overcome past conflicts. The French and the Germans read each other’s literature, listened to each other’s music, and admired each other’s paintings. They travelled to each other’s country and were engaged in business and commerce. Listening to war stories, they even admire the virtues of the other’s soldiers.

A life together, even if punctuated by conflicts, help former adversaries to know the humanity of the other and appreciate their culture. War propaganda aims to rob the adversaries of their humanity, and we have to take the opposite position, seeing all people, even enemies as human beings.

I read the book and saw the movie All Quiet on the Western Front. There is a scene of profound meaning. In a bomb hole, the protagonist – a German soldier – mortally wounds a French soldier, not because of hate, but because of fear, the old “if I do not kill him, he will kill me” principle. While the French soldier is dying, they talk. The German is trying to help his dying adversary. After many hours of agony, he dies, and the German takes from the dead man’s pocket a business card, on which the name is written, with the subtitle “Compositeur Français.” Yes, the dead French soldier might have been a great composer, the German thinks. They might have met in a Paris café and the German might have listened one day to a beautiful symphony composed by this French composer.

Sure, we cannot be naïve or too idealistic. There are still nations or ethnic groups who still hate each other. There is still racial discrimination and racial hate. There is however a road to healing, based on common history and common experiences and in seeing the humanity of the other.

“To have another language is to possess a second soul.” (Charlemagne)

There is wisdom in this, and it can be extended. To know another people, its culture, its values and its history, is to gain another soul. I have partially experienced this, as I have grown in Romania, then moved to United States. I admired the New York skyscrapers, but, most important, I felt the energy of the Manhattan streets and learned about the life and experiences of my co-workers. I took part in a Bible study group inside the New York Stock Exchange. I read the newspapers, from the serious Wall Street Journal and New York Times to local politics newspapers like New York Post. I am not sure if I felt the soul of America, but I clearly felt the soul of New York. I became a New Yorker, and I loved the city and its people.

I had similar experiences in India and Russia, where I traveled not as a tourist, but to work with local teams. In India I traversed Mumbai at night, through streets filled with people, old, young and children, beaming with life. I was surrounded by beggars, and I met professional people in modern offices. I was amazed at the size of the country and realized that there are more people in the word than I imagined while living in a nice American suburb, quiet and deserted at night.

In Russia, in Saint Petersburg, I encountered a great culture. I worked with brilliant engineers and went for picnics in the forests. We spent evening in the sauna and went to the famous Mariinski Theater to view the Nutcracker. I came to love the Russians and I transitioned from being a Russophobe to a Russophile.

The key to all these experiences was a certain type of direct knowledge, which does not come from books or from the superficial sightseeing offered to the tourists, but only through a direct encounter. Only in this way one can feel the humanity of the other. Just as you cannot really know a person by simply reading about him or her, in the same way you only know a people and its culture by immersing yourself in it and identifying with it, becoming part of it. If you do that, you gain a second soul. After you become an American or a Russian or an Indian, you cannot hate these people. Past grievances are forgotten and the road to healing the wounds is open.

Growing up in Romania, there were two peoples whom we disliked: the Hungarians and the Russians. We had old grievances with them, old wounds which were slow to heal. To a degree, I had my own ethnic prejudices while I grew up. Later in life, my perspective had radically changed, and I will write how about this in the next postings.

Turning the Tables

My mother has given me a wonderful example how to turn the tables on some powerful bureaucrat.

This happened sometimes in 1983. I have left Romania in 1980 and did not plan to go back as long as Ceausescu was in power. I missed my parents and they missed me. Finally, my mother decided to apply for a passport and come visit me in United States.

Getting a passport in Communist Romania was not easy. For any application for passport, the initial response was NO. However, my mother insisted, and she had a chance, being an elderly woman. As part of the process, she had to be interviewed by an officer of Securitate (Romanian Communist secret service) who would try to persuade her to give up, or at least guess her intentions. What about if she decided to stay in US, or return as a CIA spy?

So my mother came to the Securitate building and was invited in an office to talk with the officer. This was supposed to be an intimidating experience. Secret police officers were powerful, and people were afraid of them. The following dialog ensued.

OfficerMadam, what do you want?
MotherI need a passport to travel to United States and see my son.
OfficerWhy?
MotherBecause he is my son and I have not seen him and my grandchildren for a long time. I really miss them.  
OfficerFor how much time you did not see them?
MotherFor about three years.
OfficerThat is no reason to go. Three years is not a lot.  
MotherI believe it is. Maybe you do not know what a mother feels.
OfficerLook, my mother lives in Moldova and I have not seen her for ten years. So what? Nobody is dying.  
MotherYou did not see your mother for ten years? SHAME ON YOU! This is the woman who gave you birth and fed you and raised you. How can you abandon her? SHAME ON YOU!  
OfficerAll right. Here is your paper signed by me. You will get your passport.

You find out that people in high positions are humans after all. Do not be afraid!

My Job Interviews

One can find articles, on internet or in various magazines, which advise job seekers how to behave during an interview. There are of course good behaviors, making a job offer more probable, and bad behaviors, which would rapidly disqualify a candidate. The articles offering advise often concentrate on fine points, with the assumption that there are some secret and esoteric methods to make you successful.

I remember giving only one advice to my children or friends when they went for an interview. It was based on what mayor Ed Koch of New York once said when asked what if he loses incoming elections. He said, “If they do not choose me, I will find a better job, but they will not find a better candidate.”

I will tell here the story of some of my job interviews. They may be instructive, but mostly entertaining. You take what you think is good and reject what you think is bad. I will jump ahead with one conclusion: it is a chaotic process. Perhaps a better way to say it is that it is in God’s hands.

Here we go:

Interview #1: Chase Manhattan, 1981, Succeeded

I arrived in the United States on December 9 and in January I started to look for a job. After many months of search, I was almost entering a state of depression and losing hope. During those months I continued to lower may expectations, to the point where I would have accepted anything at any level of compensation.

Finally, a lady from a placement agency sent me to an interview for a programmer position with a big New York bank. She had a way of encouraging me:

“Do not worry about your strong accent. It sounds European, and most people think that Europeans are smart and educated. Rather than a disadvantage, it gives you and advantage.” Well, not Europeans are smart and educated, but if this is what Americans think, so much the better for me.

I was interviewed by two people. The first was a young and beautiful lady, maybe just a few years older than me. I do not remember the details, but looking back at the results, I believe I did well. The second was a man around thirty-five, an East European Jew, himself an immigrant. Here I had a small problem.

I was inflating my resume with some experience which I never had. While I was having some moral doubts, I finally looked at it as a white lie which would not hurt anybody. Imagine this: you sold somebody a piece of metal you pretend that it weighs 11 ounces. You lie, because in reality it weighs only 10 ounces. However, the buyer believe he buys silver, when in fact the metal is gold. Are you hurting the buyer? No. He gets more than he expected for his money. Thus, although you lied, you are not hurting the buyer. I was thinking in the same way. I was sure I will be doing better than 90% of the programmers, so what does it matter if I lie about my experience? I had a second moral argument: I was desperate, so why hesitate to lie when it comes to feeding my family?

When this second person interviewed me, all went well until he asked an unexpected question: “You claim here that you have worked with PDP-11 computers. How come? As far as I know, they do not have them in Eastern Europe.” He new something about Easter Europe, as he was a Jewish immigrant from Soviet Union. I had to be consistent, so I insisted that we had PDP-11s in Bucharest, Romania. I am sure he did not believe me.

I believe at that point we both had a moment of clarity. He knew I was lying, and I knew he knew I was lying. It was transparent for both of us. I was however saved. I imagine my interviewer might have had these thoughts:

“He is obviously lying about his experience. On the other side, he is young, and bright. He is desperate to get a job, which is understandable. If I hire him, he will work harder than others and will produce more. I was once in his position, so why not?”

A few days later I got an offer for $18,500 per year. It was not bad in 1981, but not high either. I was incredibly happy, thinking that now I can do what only very rich people can do, go once a month and have a hamburger at McDonalds’.

Interview #2: Some bank in New York, 1983, Failed

I knew that Chase was only a steppingstone for me, so in 1983 I applied for a job at another New York bank. I hoped to get a better salary and a position of more responsibility. The interview went well, and they told me that as a last step I must take a polygraph test. No problem, there was no inflated resume and no intention to lie this time.

It was the only time in my life when I took a lie detector test, and I found it interesting and relaxing. However, when the results came, I was told that they caught me lying about my residence status in the United States. The truth, which could be proved with documents, was that I had a political refugee status, with the right to work. I protested and went to show them the documents. I do not know if they believe me or not, but I was rejected. I will never trust lie detectors.

Interview #3: Some other bank in New York, 1983, Failed

I did not give up and applied at another bank. I met a team of brilliant software developers, and I got all the signals that they like me. Their boss even asked me if I can start earlier than usual (I agreed). I was told that the last step, purely formal, was an interview with a guy from Human Resources.

When I stepped in his office, he told me that it was all a big mistake. The description of the position specified the requirement for a person with two years’ experience in a certain technology, while my resume clearly indicated that I had only one year experience, therefore I could not occupy the position. I do not remember how I reacted, only that I left not so much disappointed, but marveling at the stupidity of a so-called human resource specialist. What does it matter if one has one- or two-years’ experience in a particular field? I knew cases of developers with no experience in a certain technology, only to become experts in one or two weeks, simply because they were highly intelligent. I also knew people with ten years’ experience who had poor results.

Interview #4, Large marketing company in New York, 1984, Succeeded

I really do not remember the interview itself, only that they made me an offer, which I accepted. I was now making more than 50% more than in my first job, so it was not bad, and in addition the work was interesting. Unfortunately, I soon run into trouble.

I had two problems there. The first was that the management chose some technical solution which was very poor but made great profits for a particular vendor. I demonstrated that it was not a good solution, at which time I incurred the wrath of my boss who might have had some private interests to recommend it. The second problem appeared a year later, when I got a poor work review. I argued with my boss, showing that I performed above expectations and at the highest level of quality, while working in harmonious relationships with the team. After a long discussion she told me the truth.

“Look,” she said, “women were oppressed for a hundred years in this country. The only way to help them move ahead is to ensure that they get better reviews, so they can be promoted.”

Nice, I sympathized with all those oppressed women, but I was not amused to be the victim of somebody’s social agenda. I decided that I had no future there, and I resigned, which was a mistake, because I did not have another job.

Some headhunter promised me a 100% sure position as a contract developer, which soon became 0%.

Interview #5, Investment bank, New York, 1986, Succeeded

Perhaps this was my most amazing interview of my career.

I was in dire straits, I run out of money, and I had a wife and two children to feed at home. I was working with a headhunter who promised to find something good for me.

One Sunday afternoon I got a call, and he told me he had an interview set up for me in three days. What position? I asked. He told me it was a large investment bank which desperately wanted developers with Natural/Adabas experience. My resume indicated that I had just that.

“Forget about it,” I said, “while it is true that I worked with Natural/Adabas, I only did it for one week, therefore I cannot claim I have any serious experience.”

“Do not worry,” he responded in a confident voice, “your experience is good enough and they are really desperate to find people.”

I knew this will be a technical interview, and my only chance was to somehow refresh my knowledge. Monday morning, I went back to one of my previous employers, where in the past I had the brief encounter with Natural/Adabas, with the hope that they would lend me a manual for a few days. I was thrown out in the street (not literally!). An old boss told me that since I decided to leave them, I am on my own and they will not move a finger to help me.

My next step was to contact Software AG, the company which created and sold Natural/Adabas. Surely, they had the manuals and were willing to sell them. I called and I was told that in order to buy the manuals, they had to first send me a non-disclosure agreement, I have to sign and send it back, then I had to pay around $100 (which I did not have) and in other two weeks I would receive the manuals. That was not good: my interview was coming in two days.

At the last moment I had an idea. What about if I go to their office in Manhattan and beg them to lend me the manuals for a day or two? Who knows, maybe I will be lucky and find a good soul who would have mercy on me. So I went, and I talked with a manager, who seemed very willing to help, but told me he is not allowed to let the manuals out of the building. “Not a problem,” I told him, “I will stay in the lobby and study the manuals here. He agreed, and I spent 3-4 hours reading through the manuals. That was however some poor preparation. Once cannot learn from a technical manual in hours something that normally requires weeks or months of hands-on experience.

At the investment bank I was interviewed by two ladies and had an unexpected luck. The first lady asked me a series of technical questions, and I was able to answer only about half of them. That was not promising. However, I had the inspiration to always ask what the correct answer was, and I tried to remember it.

To my surprise, the second lady asked me exactly the same technical questions, and this time I answered all of them correctly. I imagine that the two ladies met afterwards and compared notes. I was mediocre for one but perfect for the second one. As they averaged their impressions, they decided to make me an offer.

I was not only saved from hunger, but the offer was for double what I was making in my previous job. God was good with me.

Interview #6, Software Company, Reston, VA, 1987, Successful

I really wanted to work for a software company, where I was thinking I would be involved in more creative and challenging work. To my good fortune, I was called by the Vice President of a software company to come for an interview. It was not my initiative, but his, so I was in a good position from the very beginning. I do not remember the interview, perhaps it was a pure formality. This happened in December 1987. I immediately received an offer, which I accepted, soon to be confronted with a strange situation.

A few days before the end of December, a secretary sent me the forms I had to fill in order to become an employee. I did it, but there was a point in which I did not know what to write: the starting date. I was not sure when I would be able to leave my current job. I called the secretary and asked her what to write. She told me that it was absolutely irrelevant, I can write anything, so naturally I wrote “January 1st.” As it happened, I was only able to leave the current job and start the new one at the end of January.

On January 15, surprise: I got my first payroll check from the new company. I immediately called the VP who hired me (he was really in charge of all US operations) and told him about the mistake, that I was not yet working for them, therefore I should have not received the check. “No problem,” he told me, “We’ll correct this when you come here. Just keep the check.”

On January 30th, another surprise: I received the second payroll check. I did not expect it as I though that my previous call had corrected the problem.

I finally showed up in Reston in the first days of February and went straight to the Vice President’s office to return the undeserved checks.

“Mike,” he told me in a conspiratorial voice, “do you want to get me in trouble? How would I explain the mistake? If I return the checks or if they are not cashed, somebody will find out and blame me. However, if you cash them, everybody will be happy. Just keep the money!”

No more interviews

After that I changed jobs a number of times, but without real interviews. In all cases, somebody who knew me from a previous job called and invited me to come. If there was an interview, it was only a formality. I suppose this was the normal evolution of a software developer career.

My conclusion

Many times I failed where I thought I would succeed, and succeeded where I thought I would fail.

My advice: Relax and do your best. The rest is in God’s hands.